Caring for the fabric of our churches is an act of faith

Published: Thursday, January 1, 2015


Matthew Rice, designer and architectural writer, examines the relationship between church buildings and ministry.

The church’s fabric and its ministry: are they inextricably linked?

I think they are linked and that considering the buildings, bricks and mortar, stone, wood or slate of a church as a clearly distinct facet of that organisation might be missing a trick. We are living in an age when churchgoing is an exception, in fact, a rare exception. Very few people, almost no young people, go to church at all. So unfamiliar is the liturgy of the Church of England that it is almost impossible to vary the choice of hymns used at a wedding from about six old favourites. The idea that one might sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at a wedding, once a curious, rather esoteric choice, has become a standard accompaniment for church nuptials as it is a least a tune one can be sure even the most basic of non-denominational village schools will have taught the members of the congregation at some point. It might not be too extreme to say that the mission part of the Church has completely failed in the last 50 years in Britain.

The buildings, on the other hand, have been in a period of near unparalleled success. An almost unbroken rise in living standards and earnings and a generous government funding environment has, for 30 years at least, ensured our parish churches have never received so much financial attention since the ecclesiological revolution of the mid 19th century. Towers have been rebuilt, windows reglazed, the rusting ferramenta replaced with more sophisticated materials. Best practice (in which incidentally Britain leads the world) has ensured restoration at a heretofore unimagined degree of thoroughness and sensitivity.

Caring for the fabric of our churches is an act of faith

English Heritage’s previous generous grant-giving regime, together with the county churches trusts, the National Churches Trust and dozens of other funding bodies have match-funded, or single-handedly, made possible tens of thousands of projects of varying sizes both in well-loved parishes and in unloved but architecturally significant outlying churches. Increasingly, funding has extended well beyond the Church of England’s ecclesiastical estate to include churches belonging to all the main denominations, together with chapels and meeting houses.  Spending constraints in the current decade may have stymied this bonanza, but we are still living with churches that have benefitted from it.

Community involvement

Caring for the fabric of our churches is an act of Faith, but might it in fact become an article of Faith as well. It is after all also an act of commitment, of community involvement and most significantly is a way for those for whom regular worship feels impossible to engage with the church building. In every parish it represents more than a place to celebrate the Eucharist. It is the theatre in which all the community’s rites of passage are celebrated and the solemnities that seem anachronistic at 9.30am on Sunday morning offer solace to so many at a funeral, commitment at a baptism and express the vows of love at a wedding with a formula that is instantly familiar and enriching.

Spiritual heritage

Those whose church attendance is limited to four weddings and a funeral are absorbing, at those isolated events, those elements of their spiritual heritage that they are missing in the rest of their life. They are, it is of course unnecessary to say, the most precious churchgoers, those for whom the fatted lamb, in terms of their experiencing the church, must immediately be brought bleating to the table. And as such it is in the fabric of our parish churches that this most vital bit of Christian mission is sometimes most powerfully communicated. How the church looks at Christmas, from flowers and vestments, to the condition of the plaster on the walls, may be every bit as significant a means of outreach as a good bedside manner or a sonorous voice at Mass. And so caring for, which first of all means understanding the characteristics of, our churches should never be perceived as an onerous duty for a parish priest or his congregation but, rather like playing the organ, singing or doing the flowers, it should be a minor ministry.

“You went round churches when you were a child, you’re dragging us round and we will end up taking our children when we are older, it’s a vicious circle”. These are words often repeated by the children of fanatical church crawlers, mine included. I am an unrepentant zealot, for I believe that a familiarity with the form of the church building, just like the tunes in the new English Hymnal are a central part of everybody’s heritage and thatdemystifying and interpreting those buildings is God’s own work or in any case can only help. Perhaps equallyimportantly, it is the only way that we will continue tolavish resource on the churches, chapels and cathedrals that we love. If they become unfamiliar, they will becomeas unknown as our hymns.

Matthew Rice is a designer and architectural writer. A regular contributor to Country Life magazine, he is the author of many beautifully self-illustrated books on Britain’s architectural history, including Village Buildings of Britain , an illustrated survey of Britain’s village building styles to which HRH Prince Charles contributed a foreword, Building Norfolk, an illustrated historyof Norfolk’s buildings up to today, and Rice’s Church Primer , an illustrated explanation of the language of architecture in Britain’s churches, from the restrained Norman style of William theConqueror to the gilded excesses of the Baroque.